In December, Darren Sproles said he felt the 2017 season would be his last. On Sunday, the 34-year-old Eagles running back suffered a season-ending injury. Well, two season-ending injuries—he tore his ACL and broke his forearm on the same play. With a normal player, we’d presume that injuries this severe, at this age, would mean the end of his career. But Sproles has never been a normal player. And he’s vowing to make a comeback.
Whether or not his career is over, Sproles’s NFL success has been nothing short of preposterous. And I’d like to take a moment to appreciate his brilliance, and I’d like to start with this clip from what still probably stands as the best game he’s ever played: the 2003 Big 12 Championship game.
Sproles amassed 235 rushing yards and 88 more as a receiver in that game, helping Kansas State wallop a previously undefeated Oklahoma team, 35-7. The above play isn’t significantly more noteworthy than any of the hundreds of other plays on which Sproles sprang past defenders over the past decade and a half. But the clip shows that Sproles began his career back in the era when some fans still felt the best way to ensure they could rewatch highlights of their favorite team was to shove a book-sized cartridge into a VCR and program it to record. The 14 subsequent years seem to have been much harder on this uploader’s VHS tape than they were on Sproles, who made the Pro Bowl each of the past three seasons.
For Sproles’s career to have spanned from the cassette era to the YouTube era is remarkable enough; there are only 13 NFL players remaining from his 2005 draft class, which was 255 players strong. For Sproles to have still been playing running back, a position with an average career length of under three years, is downright incredible: Five of those 13 players are quarterbacks, a sixth is a punter, and the only other remaining running back is Frank Gore. No other back from the class has played since 2014.
But the most amazing thing is that Sproles has lasted as a 5-foot-6 running back. In this millennium, there have been only six players listed at Sproles’s height or shorter in the NFL. Sproles is the only one to have played more than four seasons, and Sproles has played in 12 over 13 years.
Other tiny players tend to be single-faceted return men: Miami “wide receiver” Jakeem Grant (5-foot-6) had no targets and one carry in his rookie season; “wide receiver” J.J. Moses (5-foot-6) never got a single target in four years with the Packers, Texans, and Cardinals; “wide receiver” Trindon Holliday (5-foot-5) had only two targets and one carry in four years with the Texans, Broncos, 49ers, and Buccaneers. Bears running back Tarik Cohen (5-foot-6) seems to be joining Sproles in breaking this paradigm, but short players tend to be pigeonholed. Sproles, conversely, is one of the most versatile players in NFL history. He’s the only player with 30 receiving touchdowns, 20 rushing touchdowns, a kick-return touchdown, and a punt-return touchdown. He’s climbed to eighth all-time in the all-purpose yardage rankings. If he winds up playing a few more games, he’ll likely pass Marshall Faulk and Steve Smith; as it stands, he’s already ahead of LaDainian Tomlinson and Barry Sanders. (Not bad guys to be ahead of.)
Sproles is most famous for his blazing speed, fully evident from his very first NFL touchdown—a kick return with the Chargers in 2007.
But while returning kickoffs is primarily about building pure straight-line speed, a great punt returner has to dance and avoid tacklers before accelerating. While we often lump return men into one category, it takes two different skill sets to be great at both, and Sproles has been. He’s lost some of his kickoff-returning ability as he aged—he hasn’t been a team’s primary kickoff-return man since 2011—he’s gotten better at returning punts as his career has progressed. He never made the Pro Bowl until joining the Eagles in 2014, when he led the NFL in total punt returns and yards per return, and promptly made the Pro Bowl in back-to-back-to-back years for his punt-returning prowess.
And Sproles consistently managed to contribute on offense in addition to special teams. He’s never been a team’s lead back, but he got at least 50 carries per season every year in all but one season from 2008 through 2016, and he’s averaged 4.9 yards per carry for his career. He showed the ability to spell stars; when Tomlinson got hurt in the 2009 playoffs, Sproles managed 105 yards and a walk-off touchdown in a win over the Colts.
Sproles also had the hands and route-running ability to be an effective receiver, contributing to some of the best offensive teams of all time while with the Saints. In 2011, Sproles hit career highs in rushing and receiving while Drew Brees set an NFL record for passing yardage.
As often happens with the smallest athletes professional sports have to offer, Sproles has also become a fan favorite. When we see a regular-sized human sharing a field with giants—or, in Sproles’s case, a man who is well below the average size for American males sharing a field with giants—we identify with the smaller ones. We want to believe that our sports hold a place for those of us who haven’t won the genetic lottery, and players of Sproles’s size allow us to imagine that this is true.
There’s another factor that allows us to project ourselves onto Sproles: He’s never revealed much of a public persona. You’ve probably never heard Sproles give an interview. That’s because Sproles prefers to avoid interviews due to a stutter he’s dealt with since childhood. Back when he was dominating at Kansas State (and majoring in speech pathology), he hoped he wouldn’t win the Heisman Trophy because the Heisman winner has to give a nationally televised speech. Even after a lifetime of working on it, public speaking is still hard for Sproles—he had to be talked into participating in an NFL-filmed documentary about his off-the-field work with children dealing with stutters.
But don’t make the mistake of thinking that Sproles is common because of his size, or filling the vacuum left by his lack of public speeches with whatever personality traits you want Sproles to represent. The only person like Darren Sproles is Darren Sproles, a man whose unique talents and skill set have rarely been matched in football history. At the combine, he ran a 4.47 40, a 3.96 shuttle, and benched 23 reps of 250 pounds. Of the thousands of players in Pro-Football-Reference’s NFL combined data, only six have managed to be fast enough to run the 40 in under 4.5 seconds, agile enough to run the shuttle in under four seconds, and strong enough to bench at least 20 reps. He combined these tremendous physical gifts with things you can’t test for—exceptional vision, the perception to know how to use tacklers’ momentum against them, and physical and mental durability that surpass what many bigger backs have to offer.
Sproles’s height might be below average, but little else about him ever has been.